The Chinese Model and Chinese Paradigm of Media Studies


By Hu Zhengrong

1. The tenet for Chinese economy in the past three decades is capitalism and economic liberalism. When China starts the reform, the state jumpstarted a massive campaign of privatization. Most of the former state-owned enterprises were either sold or get listed in the stock market. Although the state is still in control of some key industries, the private capital is always welcome in most of the economic sectors. However, the government even withdraws from the public sector, which was supposed to be the responsibility of the government. Tens of thousands of laid-off workers were left unattended; farmers were kicked out of the way of the urban development project without decent compensation; the capital forces dominated education and real estate market, and the health care system is on the brink of collapse. People start joking that education, heal care and housing are “three new big mountains” on the back of ordinary Chinese.

2. The Culture Revolution is the watershed of the People’s Republic of China. During the upheaval, Chairman Mao smashed what he has nurtured-a communist utopia, and a large part of the population were disillusioned after that. But the communism is still the official ideology and its status in the Chinese constitution is unshakable. However, the government needs some new glue to reunite the people. That is pragmatism. Deng Xiaoping once said, “The good cat is the one who can catch the mouse, be it white or black.” This famous saying officially broke the ideological line and anointed the function of market economy in the economic development. The CPC and the political system under its control are capable of harnessing the pragmatism to strengthen its control on the society while shielding off any potential challenges to the power.

3. In the culture field, the Confucianism has reemerged as a contributor to a “harmonious society”, and the traditional values were once again emphasized by the government. Some local government even authorized a “standard Confucius Statue”. Meanwhile, Chinese culture is diversified in a stratified and diversified society. For media industry, the diversified audiences bring about diversified programs. First of all, the format of the program is diversified. There are not only news, commentaries in China, but game show, talk show, and reality TV, etc. Secondly, the content is diversified. Some 20 years ago, political content is dominant. Today, there is more and more entertainment in Chinese media.

The Distinction of the Chinese Media System

The Chinese media system has three main distinctions:

1. Single ownership, dual system. China’s media now are still state-owned. With regard to property, all media in China are state property, but in operation, some parts of media industry such as content production and advertising are open to private capital. The typical media operation is to compete and make profit on the one hand and on the other, to implement the will of the party, with the financial gains from the market. In terms of business, all media are state-owned. Although private capital is allowed to join them, the government is always the one who has the final say. However, the drawback of this model has become more and more and more obvious. For example, the media may lease its power to some interest groups. The government and the commercial entities may also use media to infringed upon the public interests because the media are part of the government and is not independent organizations.

2. The complex role of media in society. In China, the media are the political propaganda machines in the first place, the competitor in the market and then the provider of public service. The Chinese media actually play roles that should be played separately in state-owned, commercial and public-owned media systems. Since the reform, the Chinese media landscape has been dramatically changed. During the market reform, some media are becoming more mainstream, while others are being marginalized. When facing the financial benefits, the political purpose is sometimes in the collision course with commercial reality. In recent years, local media like Hunan TV and Jiangsu TV are getting stronger and start to challenge the CCTV monopoly.

3. The uncertainty of China’s media policy and media institution. China’s media are neither companies nor corporations, but government organizations. The government is managing the media on the Party’s behalf. Kenneth Liberthal describes Chinese media system as a “matrix muddle”[1], which features both vertical and horizontal structures. (See chart-1).

Figure-1 Chinese Media & Government Structure

4. With the economic reform, central media and media in the coastal areas are getting more resources while other media can barely make ends meet, and the government is still executing a highly centralized and identical policy in a diversified nationwide media landscape. China’s transition is still moving on, and the transformation of the political system, which is closely related to media, still has some uncertainty in the future. So how should we evaluate the role of media? Currently, all media are state-property; could we expect a breakthrough in media ownership, say, burgeoning private media organizations? These questions need our answers.

Obstacles for the Chinese paradigm of media studies

For Chinese model, there always appear situations that the established paradigm cannot fully explain.

1. The Anglo-American paradigm of media studies is not always compatible with Chinese social and media reality. In the concept system, concepts like liberalism, conservatism, political right, middle and left, public interests, democracy, rights, freedom and individualism are way different from Chinese understandings. In his book, James Kynge described, “China owes its emergence as a global power to the free market system pioneered by the US, but has very different values from those in most countries that have grown up under the Pax Americana.”[2] Politically, China has more than 2000 years of imperial history, and a highly centralized nation state is the common form of Chinese nation. Since Han dynasty, every emperor attached great importance to the teachings of Confucius. For the ruling class, the Confucianism is a set convenient philosophy that could be used to maintain the social stability. Confucianism emphasizes family values, obedience, and moral disciplines. There is also a long tradition of patriarchic politics. Even in the common Chinese family today, the words from senior members are always of significant influence. Ordinary Chinese people have an integrated view of world, state and family. In their daily life, Chinese believe eclecticism, and are reluctant to get involved in any conflict. They cherish their tradition of collectivism, not individualism.

According to the western experience, the market economy cannot last without a democracy, but in the recent two decades, the Chinese government managed to develop a market economy without a democracy, and the Chinese society in the whole is stable. So it is the unique historical and cultural background that makes the established paradigm not fully applicable in Chinese reality and a Chinese paradigm necessary for researchers to conduct media studies. From the transformation of global political and media institutions, it is also not hard for us to find this clash of paradigms; in other words, it is the clash of different culture contexts. Chris Patten said “For any liberal pluralist the comparative performances of India and China in the future will be a test of the correctness of our political philosophy.”[3] Which direction will China heading for? We shall wait and see.

2. The attempt to a Chinese paradigm and its substantiation. Chinese scholars never stop their efforts to learn from the west. Since the late Qing dynasty, some intellectuals were starting to introduce western knowledge and technology to the ancient nation. Most of research systems for modern Chinese social science and humanities are imported from the west, such as sociology, psychology, politics, economics, etc. Even the major part of current ideology of China-Marxism is the brainchild of a German. Chairman Mao should be the most famous one in China to add some Chinese flavor to the western theories because he made some changes to the traditional Marxism theory by stating the “revolution should start from countryside, and then encircle the cities, not vice versa”. After that, Deng Xiaoping introduced capitalism to the socialist state to develop its economy. For Chinese communication scholars, they have realized the necessity of a Chinese paradigm to work in parallel with its western counterpart in a unique Chinese environment. This Chinese paradigm is not to abandon the western established paradigm because of the common character of human society, but to some key Chinese questions, to adopt original Chinese concepts, methods and paradigms might be more close to the Chinese reality and a complete explanation. However, the traditional Chinese macro thinking, induction and a Chinese paradigm still need to be further substantiated in the Chinese media studies.

As a matter of fact, Chinese communication scholars expect the difference among nations could promote the diversity of the communication researches.

See “Global Media and Communication”, Vol.3, No. 3, Dec. 2007, Sage: London, ISSN 1742-7665, pp. 335-339


[1]Kenneth Liberthal (2003), Governing China, From Revolution through Reform, W. W. Norton; 2 edition.

[2]James Kynge (2006), China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[3]Chris Patten (2006), Chinese puzzle, retrieved from, on 17 May, 2006.